Could this team beat the likes of Everton and Liverpool into the Europa League spots?
The Britannia was bouncing and Mark Hughes was no doubt beaming after his current subjects had beaten his former employer. Stoke City had taken the game to Manchester City and deservedly ran out 2-0 winners. Mark Hughes unleashed his new tactical approach, playing an exciting front three of Arnautovic, Bojan and Shaqiri. The breaks were crisp and incisive, the midfield controlled the game against their expensive counterparts and The Citizens got very little change from Stoke’s impressive back-line. It was in many ways the complete performance. That day only one City looked like Premier League contenders.
Few would doubt the Welshman’s talents as a manager after successful spells with Wales, Fulham, Blackburn and now The Potters. Hughes had enjoyed success in spells at Manchester City and his dismissal; or certainly the manner of his dismissal, was extremely harsh. The only real blip on his managerial record is his time at QPR, although that club was in a mess that very few could have sorted out. He has overseen a transition from Tony Pulis’ anti-football era, retaining certain elements; such as the steel in defence, with Stoke keeping seven clean sheets already this season. However flair has been added and the front three of Bojan, Marko Arnautovic and Xherdan Shaqiri; not to mention Mame Biriam Diouf and Ibrahim Afellay, has given the Potters a distinctly cultured look.
It took the club a little while to get into their stride this season and they lost games against West Bromwich Albion and Watford along with draws against Newcastle and Norwich. Stoke currently occupy eleventh spot in the Premier League, but are just three points behind Spurs in fifth and it is difficult to imagine them failing to climb higher if they continue to show their current form. The Potters have taken 20 points from the last 30 available and are fifth in the Premier League form table over the last six games. However, the January transfer window is just around the corner and Mark Hughes will be aware that teams will look at his stars with envious glances and wallets just aching to be opened.
After a knee injury cut last season short, Bojan is showing the kind of form that made him such a coup for Mark Hughes’ side. Due to his slender frame, some predicted that Bojan would struggle to adapt to life in England and; like many players who venture to these shores, at the start of last season perhaps he did. However he quickly become acclimatised with the rigours of the Premier League and showed excellent promise scoring five goals in 18 appearances. Having learnt his craft at Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, the Spaniard had to leave the Catalan giants in search of regular first team football. Spells at Roma, AC Milan and Ajax followed, before he was sold to Stoke for a six-figure fee believed to be around £3 million, incredible value for the Potters.
Five years ago, the idea of a players of Shaqiri’s reputation plying his trade at the Britannia would be laughable, but such is the excitement and ambition at the club these days that he is indeed a regular for The Potters. The Swiss international is yet to quite hit his straps in the Premier League, but has shown glimpses of the potential he possesses. If he can strike a partnership with Bojan and the frustrating Arnautovic, Stoke have a dangerous strike force.
When Asmir Begovic left for Chelsea in the summer, many questioned whether Jack Butland could make the step up from understudy to first choice this early in his career. He has excelled however and is arguably one of the countries most in-form goalkeepers. Joe Hart is still England’s number one, but after a few years with little competition, it now appears the Manchester City stopper will have to be on top of his game if he wants to keep his place in Roy Hodgsons’s team. The 22-year-old has been linked with a move to Liverpool; along with a few others, although he has been quick to play down the speculation.
Whether they have the squad depth to deal with the rigours of a Thursday/Sunday schedule remains to be seen. Many teams struggle to deal with the dual pressures of Europa league and Premier League responsibilities and the last time Stoke made an appearance in Europe they were no different. They finished 14th in the Premier League as the demands of the Europa League caught up with them. The club in fact won just four games in the second half of the season.
The test of any team with European ambitions is navigating the Christmas minefield. Mark Hughes has regularly proven a thorn in his ex-clubs sides and he will relish Stoke’s Boxing Day clash at home with Manchester United. Away trips to Everton and West Brom will follow, before a home tie with Liverpool in the League Cup Semi-Final. They will be encouraged about the form of others however. In a season during which no club is stamping their authority on this league, Stoke have a real chance.
If they can take their current form into the New Year, the club could well be bringing Europa League football to the Britannia once again.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by NewcastleUnited
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